Darwin's Luck: Chance and Fortune in the Life and Work of Charles Darwin, by Patrick H. Armstrong; pp. xv + 195. London and New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2009, 25.00 [pounds sterling], $44.95.
The Young Charles Darwin, by Keith Thomson; pp. xii + 276. New Haven and London: Yale University press, 2009, $28.00, 18.99 [pounds sterling].
Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore; pp. xxi + 484. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, $30.00.
Three new books on Charles Darwin, among many volumes marking the bicentenary of his birth, set out to study the man in order to understand the origins of his revolutionary scientific ideas. For Patrick K. Armstrong and Keith Thomson, this is primarily a matter of psychological investigation: in order to chronicle the development of Darwin's ideas, we need to concern ourselves with his character traits, habits of mind, and social persona. For Adrian Desmond and James Moore, the focus is not Darwin's personality but a humanitarian belief system he shared with his extended family and circle of friends.
Darwin's Luck, by Patrick Armstrong, is written in an accessible style, and provides an entertaining--if a bit hurried--entrance into the major events and ideas of Darwin's life. But since it offers no original argument or new reading of primary source material, this volume has the appearance of being produced to take advantage of "Darwin year." The book's theme, captured in the title, depends on an undeveloped metaphor: just as natural selection takes advantage of chance in Darwin's theory of evolution, so too Darwin took advantage of chance in his personal and professional life. The difficulty is that Armstrong does not venture beyond stating these two facts, nor attempt to argue for any interesting hypothesis about their connection.
Armstrong does not appear to be interested in the concept of luck itself, but rather what Darwin's reaction to chance events can tell us about his character. He argues that Darwin possessed certain characteristics that define people who are considered to be "lucky": the ability to act upon chance opportunities in their lives, the willingness to rely on intuition or "gut feelings," the tendency to maintain optimism about the future, and the capacity to see the "silver lining" in bad situations (3). The book is most engaging when it describes the chance encounters and lucky breaks of Darwin's career in order to highlight one or more of these characteristics.
Darwin's Luck does spend a fair amount of time simply pointing to the ways that good (or bad) fortune turned Darwin's life in certain directions: for example, the good fortune of meeting certain mentors when he did, such as Robert Grant, who provided an early introduction to the study of marine invertebrates, microscopy, and the theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, or the luck of encountering certain geological environments (such as the barrier reefs) in the order that he did on his H.M.S. Beagle voyage. The book has more to...